Vyra is brilliant and beautiful, and it’s around the third month of their research together that Faust realizes that the reason he gravitates towards her is something far greater than just his appreciation of her insight. It also leaves him with a problem- that is to say, leaves him rather prone to distraction during work.
Vyra stands in the hall speaking to Kogami, their conversation unintelligible through the wide laboratory window panes but the brightness of her expression unmistakable. Faust watches her as she speaks, pen stalled above his work.
“Either make a move or let the woman be,” Genome says where his head is buried in his research, and Faust startles, almost drops his pen. He doesn’t, but he does manage to scribble a jagged line over the results he was recording. He sighs, puts down the pen, and grabs a clean sheet of paper from the stack at the side of his desk.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Genome actually lifts his head at that, just to give Faust an unimpressed stare. “I’m not blind. Neither is she, for that matter.”
Faust grimaces. “She’s noticed?”
Genome gives him one more pointed look, then goes back to whatever he’s been fiddling with on his laptop since Faust arrived this morning. “So has everyone else.”
Faust looks down at the small bag of chocolates sitting on the corner of his desk- exactly the same as the one half-devoured on the corner of Genome’s desk, the same as Vyra in the hall is handing to Kogami right now. Obligation chocolates- not actually necessary, and made only out of the kindness of her heart, but obligation chocolates nonetheless.
Faust stares down at them, and tries to put all the things flashing through his thoughts into words. He doesn’t know how to explain that he hasn’t dated anyone in years, not since that disaster of an incident in undergrad. He doesn’t know how to voice his worry that he’s rushing into things, making imagined feelings out of a bit of kindness and camaraderie. He doubts that Genome actually cares, for that matter, but since he’s joined the research team here, his contact with anyone outside their little circle has admittedly become rather tenuous.
Genome says, finally- “What, the chocolates?”
Faust doesn’t reply to that. He can’t see Genome’s eyes, but he can hear the roll of them in the rest of his reply. “Why don’t you just buy her the chocolates, then? Women like those kind of things nowadays, don’t they?”
Faust has absolutely no idea, and he doubts that Genome is exactly a master at matters of love either.
“I’ll think about it,” is what he says, and Genome huffs but doesn’t comment further.
He does buy her chocolates. As it turns out, putting four people in close quarters who all have a tendency to become completely absorbed in their work has consequences- namely the fact that they’re all prone to working from lunch through until near nine in the evening before someone’s head shoots up, the same phrase on their lips every time- “We forgot about dinner.”
It’s not his turn on the unofficial rotation, but Faust is first to stand and volunteer his time and wallet to picking up something while the other three finish up the day’s simulations and set up program tests to run overnight.
There’s a supermarket not far- just a few blocks down the road from their temporary base of operations in Den City, and Faust walks over briskly, trying to talk himself into and out of this in turn. The Valentine’s display greets him as soon as he steps through the doors, looking worse for wear as the clock slowly ticks towards the fifteenth. Most of the expensive options are gone, ravaged by last-minute shoppers propelled by the same frantic, foolhardy courage as Faust is now. If the cashier thinks strangely of his purchases- four sets of fried chicken and a dented-up box of chocolates, they don’t so much as mention it- and without further ado, Faust is headed back down the street, wondering what he’s just committed himself to.
He gives her the chocolates too, though for the short duration of dinner he almost talks himself out of it. As they leave the lab, right before she turns off the lights, he calls her over softly, Genome and Kogami having gone on ahead- “Ta- Kyoko.”
He holds out the box to her, and she takes it with a smile. It’s so incredibly kind.
“You’re a bit early,” she says, “but thank you.”
“Chocolate,” Jin says, tugging on Shoichi’s hand. Jin’s fingers are warm through the oversized red gloves, and Shoichi’s own prickle uncomfortably back from numbness in the heat of the convenience store.
“C’mon, Jin,” says Shoichi, trying to tug Jin along further down the aisle, where his destination’s just in reach, but Jin refuses to be moved, staring up with bright eyes at the appealing mess at the end of the aisle. Shoichi frowns at the display, done up in all the trappings of Valentine’s Day. Despite being half picked over already, the display is still gaudy, filled with bright red hearts and ribbons and all sorts of glitter that Shoichi knows from experience will stay on Jin’s hands for days if he gets anywhere close.
“I want chocolate,” says Jin, eyes stubbornly refusing to so much as leave the display as Shoichi tries and fails again to tug him down the aisle.
“How about a bar?” he asks, drying to drag Jin’s attention away, back towards the picked-over bars beside the molds and tissue paper. There’s still a few milk chocolates left, and even a few hi-milks- too sweet for Shoichi, but apparently just perfect for his terror of a little brother.
Jin shakes his head and points. “No. That one.”
Shoichi is almost afraid to look, but he does anyway, following the line of Jin’s finger to the very top of the display. It takes all of three seconds to figure out which one’s caught Jin’s attention. It’s the one at the very center of the display, the one with a bright pink ribbon on a white box, the sticker next to it informing them that it has a full twenty-four pieces of chocolate inside. It also has the price, written in large numbers that have Shoichi frowning. It’s all his pocket money for the week- all of it, plus most of what’s left over from last week. He’d come here for cards, not chocolate. Jin wasn’t even supposed to come with, but he’d insisted at the very last second, and Shoichi was forced to wait around as Jin got ready, and- “You sure that’s the one you want?”
Jin nods; Shoichi sighs. He reaches up and snatches the box from the shelf, then drops Jin’s hand to take it over to the register.
“Oh?” asks the cashier, an old woman clearly amused as Shoichi pokes his head over the counter to drop his allowance into the tray. “Have someone special to give these to?”
“Nah,” Shoichi replies, “just a dumb little brother.”
“Well,” says the woman, as she hands him the box back, “I think a sibling can be a very special person, too.”
Jin clutches the chocolate box to his chest the entire way home, despite Shoichi’s protests that he’s going to make it melt. It’s only a block, but in the cold snap that’s left snow on the ground for the better part of the week, it feels like so much longer.
“S’fine,” Jin mutters, the words muffled behind his scarf- or rather, Shoichi’s scarf, since Jin had refused to wear one when they’d gone out to the convenience store.
When they get home, the first thing they do after shaking off their boots and shedding their coats is sit on the kitchen floor and open the box of chocolates, the moment of truth for their mock argument. And sure enough-
“See,” Shoichi says, “they’re all melted.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Jin replies, and reaches into the box to take the first one.
They stuff themselves with chocolate, and if Shoichi lets Jin have thirteen pieces instead of splitting them an even twelve and twelve, well- he’s pretty sure he’s the only one keeping count.
Occasionally, Taki Kyoko makes a detour after work to the Kogami residence above Stardust Road. She visits as part of her job to monitor Kogami’s health, and to cook for the children who live there, though the latter is her own prerogative rather than any order or obligation. She knows they’re more than capable of living off of take-out and instant meals, funded by the sizable sum that Kogami has left them to use, but she’s always believed a home-cooked meal is good for the soul, and cooking is a rare pleasure in her lines of work.
But today, she’d be lying if she said she didn’t have a bit of an ulterior motive for being here. Her apartment is nice- quite spacious for a woman living alone in a place as expensive as Den City, and also funded by the not insignificant sums that Kogami has paid for her for her work over the years. The one thing it doesn't have, however, is a spacious kitchen. Kyoko lays out the ingredients one by one on the counter, then pulls the pans from the cabinet and starts to boil a bit of water. It’s just a matter of routine to get the chocolate and candy melting, and Kyoko finds it somewhat of a relaxing yearly routine- a reminder of a kinder time, perhaps, and a gift given by a man who couldn’t find it in himself to wait until White Day.
Absorbed as she is in her decorating, she doesn’t realize at first that she isn’t alone. She turns her head and almost startles- the boy who calls himself Spectre watches her from the open door to the living room.
It’s been two years, but still a little rush of guilt runs through her when she calls out- “Spectre?”
The boy startles, as if he hadn’t thought he’d be seen. He ducks his head back behind the partition, then slowly shuffles into view, as if he was about to run but changed his mind. “It smells sweet. What are you doing?”
“Making chocolates. Would you like to watch?”
Spectre considers a moment, then nods. Kyoko pulls up a stool, and Spectre climbs atop it, perched at its edge, head raised to watch with sharp eyes as she paints pink into the base of the heart-shaped mold. After a minute or so, Spectre asks, “Why are you doing this?”
There are a dozen different ways Kyoko could reply to that, some assuming more than others. She takes the middle ground. “Because it’s a special occasion, and because I find decorating chocolate fun. But most importantly, I’m making them to show the person most important to me that I love them.”
For a moment Spectre seems to consider this- and then the words click, and something in his eyes brightens with understanding. Kyoko has a nagging suspicion that she knows exactly why, so she offers, holding out a clean brush- “Would you like to make one?”
Spectre nods, about as enthusiastic as Kyoko has ever seen him. She watches Spectre carefully as he paints in the details of the mold with the melted colors, then stands with hovering hands as he pours chocolate into the molds, but he doesn’t so much as spill a drop. He has remarkably steady hands, and a knack for precision that exceeds his age. The children already have a tutor, but Kyoko wonders if she shouldn’t see if they want to enroll in some sort of lessons- piano, perhaps, or painting- even some sort of martial art might be beneficial.
Once his tray is finished, Kyoko slips it in the refrigerator with the ones she’s made, and the two of them clean up, but she doesn’t miss the way Spectre keeps glancing over at the refrigerator, then the clock, then the refrigerator again in an endless loop.
They finish washing dishes a bit early, so Kyoko brings out the red plastic bags and the nametags, lets Spectre write one out on the other side of the table.
“Who are you going to give them to?” asks Kyoko, but Spectre only covers the name on the tag he’s written with his hand, sliding it off the table and into his pocket, out of sight.
“To the person most important to me,” Spectre answers, perhaps not realizing that even just parroting Kyoko’s words has given him away. Or perhaps he does know, and simply doesn’t care- only time will tell, Kyoko supposes.
“I’m sure that person will appreciate them very much,” she says, and doesn’t miss the way Spectre perks up at the reassurance.
“I hope so.”
He brings Jin chocolates. Every year without fail, he goes out on Valentine’s morning and finds the dumbest, gaudiest box of chocolates he can find at the convenience store, cost be damned.
In trouble with your girlfriend? Ask the cashiers not so much in words but in raised eyebrows and a particular quirk to their voice as they announce his total.
Yeah , he answers with a hapless shrug and a false play at an embarrassed glance away as he lays a bill in the tray. It’s not a lie he thinks much of, not when the truth is far messier, and far less easily resolved with chocolate-sweet platitudes.
Even after half a decade, he’s not sure how much Jin hears. Progress, somewhere along the way, has given way to a plateau and Shoichi isn’t sure for how long it’s going to stretch. When he was young- younger than he still is, anyway- Shoichi hated the helplessness of it all. But he’s been learning, lately, figuring out the ways to access all sorts of information he shouldn’t know. And he might have hit on something, this time- might have hit on something big.
“I swear,” he promises Jin, quiet and sure as always before he leaves, “I’m going to make this right.”
This time it feels much less like a lie.
He never actually eats the chocolates he brings, and is never sure if Jin has enough good days in a row to eat any of them himself. He hopes someone, at least, enjoys them. The thought of them being shuffled nonchalant into the trash leaves a bad taste in his mouth, bitter as all the dead ends and all the other names he can’t seem to track down. But if not this year- then next year. And if not next year, then the year after that. He’ll keep on bringing chocolates as many years as it takes, until he can drag Jin to the store and have him pick out the ones he wants for himself.
Zaizen Akira comes home with a gift-bag full of chocolates- mostly given out of obligation from subordinates, though there’s a few thrown in the mix that he’s sure are handmade, and a letter with an invitation he knows he’ll read but politely decline when he returns to work.
There’s a small stack of chocolates on the dining room table already, across from his forgotten laptop. Akira sets his down beside them gently and notices that the corners of the boxes have largely been dented- as if they’d been dumped carelessly down on the table before Aoi had thought better of it and fixed them up nicely. Aoi herself is sitting cross-legged on the couch, a bag of chips open in her lap and the television flipped over to one of the LINK VRAINS coverage channels, though there doesn’t seem to be anything of note happening.
“You got quite a few,” Akira notes. Aoi just hums and swallows a mouthful of chips.
“None from anyone who matters,” says Aoi, in the flat tone of voice that means she intends on eating none of them. It’s a bit of a shame, when some of the boxes in her stack clearly look homemade. Then again, Akira supposes he has no right to talk. He’s never been keen on most sweets, but he’d hoped that Aoi, at least, would be interested in eating his excess.
Over on the couch, Aoi flips to a different channel- this time one with a duel, though it’s between no one of particular note. But it does give Akira an opportunity- while he’s sure Aoi’s attention is elsewhere, Akira pulls a box from his briefcase and props it up against the side of Aoi’s chocolate pile. It’s a simple box, just a red and white rectangle amongst the small towers of them on the family table- but he slips a card in front of it, and hopes Aoi notices it before he gets home for the night.
“Are you going back to work?” Aoi calls, glancing over her shoulder just as Akira picks up his laptop from the table, placing it carefully in his bag where the chocolates had been.
“I’m sorry,” he says, the meaning genuine. He’d like to spend more time at home with Aoi, if he could, but he’s being considered for a promotion that would ensure that the two of them would never again have to go back to the old days of illegal jobs and worrying about money. He’s gotten used to the long hours, and can only hope that Aoi has, too.
“I understand. Have a safe trip,” Aoi replies, then turns back to the television, where one of the duelists is finishing up a long chain of effects that should likely win them the duel.
“Enjoy your afternoon,” he replies, then heads back out the door, mind already listing everything he’d have to do before he could return for the night.
Aoi doesn’t bring up the chocolates, though even stumbling in the door half-asleep after midnight Akira recognizes that his box is gone from the pile. A few days later he finds the box on the countertop, lid off to its side and a note left in Aoi’s handwriting on a scrap of the envelope his card had been in. Thank you. I left the last one for you.
He pops it in his mouth, and almost laughs out loud at the taste- no wonder she left this last one behind. Ever since she was little, she’d never liked the taste of peanuts and chocolate.
Ema pulls up on her motorcycle at exactly the time he asked her to meet, cutting a silhouette of black against the sunset sky done up in orange and pink and faded-out blue. She, as always, all but demands the attention of passersby as she removes her helmet and leans over the handlebars to flash Akira a wry smile. “You have some nerve,” says Ema with no bite. “Calling a girl out for work on Valentine’s day.”
Akira has known Ema just long enough to realize that she’s not being serious- she rarely is, with exchanges like this. Despite her protests about money and time, she’s never turned down a request from him- and though she’d never be caught dead admitting it, he knows that she’s undercharged him, once or twice.
“Well,” she says, tucking a lock of hair behind her ear, “I’ll make an exception for SOL’s new Security Chief. What did you need?”
“I was thinking we could discuss it over dinner?” There are quite a few details involved with this job, and quite a few old contacts of his thrown into the mix- while he no longer meddles with matters of the underworld, he’s become an old friend in a high place, and there’s a few debts from the early days he knows he’ll never forget. While he has all the information on a flash drive, he imagines hearing it from him directly will make the circumstances surrounding the job a little bit clearer for her when the time comes.
Ema lifts an eyebrow, but there’s a hint of a smile on her lips. “I’ll have you know I’m not a cheap date.”
“I would only make reservations at the finest.” And it’s true- while the two of them don’t have the sort of relationship where he feels pressured to impress Ema, like he’s vaguely aware some of her other clients feel, that doesn’t mean he wants to treat her cheaply- his appreciation, he hopes, is worth more than that.
Ema tosses him a helmet, and Akira catches it with ease, though he can’t say he’s not surprised. “I thought we could take my car.”
“This is faster,” Ema says, “tell me the place and get on.”
He climbs on the back of Ema’s motorcycle, then freezes awkwardly, trying to figure out what to do with his hands and, apparently, telegraphing his hesitation straight to Ema.
“They go around my waist,” Ema says in the light lilt of a tone she puts on when she’s trying not to show her amusement.
Akira wraps his arms around Ema’s waist and shakes away the voice telling him that this is somehow far more intimate than he’d planned for- not when he’s caught up in Ema’s pace, speeding into the last of the Den City sunset.
Blue Angel is fourteen years old the first time she takes to LINK VRAINS, and teetering on the brink of fifteen by the time she starts to make it big, by the time the commentators and the spectators drop the ‘upcoming’ from ‘upcoming Charisma Duelist’ when they refer to her. It’s also around the time when she first has an incident where she finds being a Charisma Duelist can be more of a headache than the likes of Go Onizuka flashing across the screen makes it seem.
“You versus Go Onizuka!” says the promoter, his avatar a bland-suited man that towered a good head and a half over her, “Just think about it! The star of LINK VRAINS and the hottest upcoming idol, pit against each other in a first-of-its-kind match!”
“It’s not like I’m opposed, but-”
“You don’t want to do it? Fans would be so disappointed to hear that something big like this fell through the cracks, Blue Angel. I’m sure you don’t want to disappoint, do you?” The promoter's comment cuts frustratingly close, but she can’t let him see he’s struck a nerve.
“But on Valentine’s Day?” she asks, knowing exactly what they’re trying to do here. Fourteen might be young, but it’s old enough to be aware of a lot of things about the way the entertainment world works, and more than enough know that everyone likes to make a scandal where there is none- especially in regards to love.
“Listen,” says the promoter, taking a step closer. All it does is accentuate the height difference of their avatars, but Aoi refuses to back down. She stares him down, thinking with every words he says that she shouldn’t have even stopped to give him the time of day. “This is an opportunity, alright? You either let us organize a few things for you- smooth the way to the top, you understand, those kinds of things, or-”
Aoi draws the line there. She crosses her arms and says, pointed- “I’m not going to do it.”
The promoter’s expression curls down into a sneer. “You really don’t want to-”
“Hey!” calls a voice, familiar and far from unwelcome. Both Aoi’s and the promoter’s head snap towards the sound, to the person jogging up to them. Almost immediately does the promoter jump back. He’s halfway towards putting on that unassuming smile that had lured Aoi down to him in the first place before his expression goes pale. It’s not another moment before he’s gone, logged out of LINK VRAINS without so much as a word.
“Missed him, huh?” says Go Onizuka, stopping just at Aoi’s side. He too towers over her, but there’s something immediately more open about his posture, something immeasurably more honest. “Sorry, there’s been some sketchy people trying to get in with the Charisma Duelists, lately. But don’t worry. If the promoters offer you something sketchy you can always turn them down. And if they won’t take no for an answer, then let me know and I’ll give them a piece of my mind.”
“Thank you,” replies Aoi, “I’ll remember that.”
“I wouldn’t turn down a duel, though. From one Charisma Duelist to another.” Go holds out his hand. Aoi considers it a moment, then takes it.
“I wouldn’t mind that either,” she replies. They shake on it, and Go grins.
“Maybe not on Valentine’s Day, though,” he says, and Aoi nods.
“Definitely not on Valentine’s Day.”
(The rumors spread anyway- apparently someone had gotten a shot of them shaking hands and smiling at each other, and blown it completely out of proportion. For a few days it’s practically all she sees about Blue Angel outside of her duel results. But somehow, Aoi thinks, it’s infinitely more tolerable than the alternative.)
“What is this?”
Yusaku steps into the back of Cafe Nagi to an overwhelming sweetness hanging cloying in the air and a veritable mess across every surface of the truck- bowls and small boxes and scraps of bright red tissue paper, spilled over onto the floor.
“Chocolates,” Kusanagi replies, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world for cardboard boxes of chocolate to be stacked up atop the counter, obstructing where they usually work.
“Why,” deadpans Yusaku, mildly unsure if he wants to close the door behind him and commit to whatever he’s found himself in the middle of or to step back outside and pretend he hadn’t seen a thing. He closes the door, of course, because he’s quickly realizing that his help is probably necessary.
“C’mon, you know why. You should be getting plenty of chocolates tomorrow too, right?” Kusanagi grins at him, but he’s quickly forced to turn away, back to the bowls of melted chocolate he’s pulls from the microwave as the timer goes off.
“I doubt it.” Most anyone who tries to approach him eventually backs off, unsure how to proceed when faced with utter lack of interest. Yusaku moves closer, leaning around Kusanagi’s shoulder to get a better glimpse of the melted chocolate. It’s as unremarkable as he expected melted chocolate to be. “Is it really necessary to make it from scratch? There’s plenty of boxes in stores.”
Kusanagi waves him away from the warm bowls, and Yusaku obligingly steps back. “Hey, it’s the little touches! People love things like this.”
Yusaku looks at the boxes of chocolate, then tentatively peeks over the edge of an open one. He’d been expecting boxes, wrapped up nicely for Valentine’s Day at first, and then a few stacks of plain chocolate- but what he finds instead are bars or every conceivable flavor and color. “You’re not going to lose money on this?”
“It’s the long term picture, Yusaku. Customer loyalty! I gave away a few last year and everyone came back asking if I was going to do it again this year.”
“And how long is this going to take?” Yusaku asks. It’s still a few days before the fourteenth, and while Yusaku understands that on a large scale it would be impossible not to start a few days ahead, he really did come here with the intention to work on decrypting the data they’d found last week.
Kusanagi grins and holds out a spare spatula from the workspace. “It’ll go faster if you help.”
Yusaku stares at it blankly a moment, then reaches out to take it. “Just this once.”
Yusaku discovers very quickly into the evening that making chocolates does not come with the same simple ease for him as it does Kusanagi. The first batch that come out overflow their bounds, and the less said about his first attempt at mixing different colors, the better. Kusanagi doesn't seem to mind, though, and sends Yusaku away for the night with a bag full of misshapen chocolates and a promise to help him tomorrow, too.
Yusaku sets the bag down on his desk, too sick of the smell of chocolate to even consider eating any now, and admits to himself that he would have gone back to help even without Kusanagi making him promise.
“Do you like chocolates?”
Revolver’s voice is unexpected, and his question even more so. He’d just returned from buying lunch for the two of them after noticing that the food truck was once again parked down at Stardust Road. While both he and Spectre have taken up cooking, as of late, the food at the cafe is cheap and good in its simplicity; Spectre had no reason to refuse a meal bought from there.
Spectre turns his head to look, setting down the book he’s been reading on the countertop, and sure enough, Revolver is standing in the doorway with a takeaway bag. What’s more unusual- and what probably prompted the question- is the small box in his other hand. It’s plain cardboard, and given the day, he can make more than a guess at what’s inside. “I don’t dislike them, I suppose. Is there a reason you ask..?”
Revolver sits down in the chair across from Spectre, and pushes the box across the counter to rest firmly before Spectre. “I never repaid the favor.”
“Pardon?” Spectre says, caught completely off-guard. There’s not a single thing favor he hasn’t given freely. As far as Spectre is concerned, he’s still repaying Revolver for the outstretched hand of a decade ago.
Revolver sends him a knowing glance, not quite amused but- fond, if Spectre had to put a word to it. “From when we were children. You and Vyra made chocolates for me.”
“That’s…” Spectre stalls, momentarily lost for words. He’s grown in many ways since the time Vyra caught him spying in the kitchen eight years ago, but there are quite possibly just as many things that haven’t changed. “That isn’t a favor you’re expected to repay.”
“Spectre,” Revolver says, and just that one word stops all Spectre’s pleasantly-worded protests before they can so much as think to leave his mouth. “I want to repay you. Take the chocolates.”
“Thank you,” Spectre says, though the words don’t feel like enough. He ducks his head, and doesn’t quite notice the way that Revolver smiles at him as he takes out their food.
(“I’ll repay you next year, too,” Revolver says casually, once they’re done with lunch, and Spectre’s heart all but stops in his chest. He thinks of White Day a month away, and hopes dearly that he hasn’t quite lost his childhood touch for homemade chocolates.)
Naoki is halfway to the register with a box of chocolates- the good chocolates, not the dime a dozen boxes done up in cheap paper and easily breakable boxes- before he realizes he has no idea what he’s going to do with them. It isn’t as if he actually knows Playmaker, and even if he somehow did manage to call out the guy in LINK VRAINS, it’s not as if he could upload the physical chocolates, somehow. He doesn’t even so much as have the data from when one of Playmaker’s cards got sent to his deck by mistake.
Naoki stops, stares down at the box of chocolates in his hand- expensive but understated, a variety box of twenty different flavors and combinations that Naoki has never personally tried but thinks sound particularly appetizing- and thinks, Ah, whatever. It’s not like I’m getting any anyway.
He throws the box into his basket and takes it to the cashier with no shame. If he’s going to spend Valentine’s Day alone, he might as well spend it enjoying himself.
It’s not Yusaku’s idea to get the sapling.
“You killed his tree,” Aoi says to him one day, point-blank. They’re sitting together in the public viewing plaza after school, eating Cafe Nagi’s newest attempt at a set menu and waiting for something of interest in LINK VRAINS- but it’s a slow day, and they’ve spent more time silently enjoying each other’s company rather than really watching the screens. “You should probably do something about that.”
“That means you forgive him?”
Aoi frowns at the thought. Yusaku supposes that he didn’t have to ask- even the few times they’d been forced to work together, Aoi has never made her distaste for Spectre anything but clear. “No. But I also didn’t kill his tree. And I also know exactly how it feels to be waiting on an apology from someone who probably doesn’t know they’re supposed to be apologizing in the first place.”
“Point taken,” Yusaku replies. “Help me pick something out?”
Aoi looks over at him, her expression the kind of carefully blank incredulity that Yusaku has never seen anyone but her make. “Are you really asking me that?”
Yusaku shrugs, and they go back to watching the screens, occasionally trading comments about strategy and upcoming matters in the real world. They linger long after they’ve finished eating, and it’s only when Kusanagi starts closing up shop that either of them think to move.
(She does come along with him after school the next day- and in the end, she’s the one who picks out the plant and the pot, so Yusaku considers it a favor well-asked.)
There’s a terrible sense or surreality that surrounds the fact Spectre and Revolver have always lived at the top of Stardust Road that even a year removed from their battles hasn’t managed to make disappear. Cafe Nagi and its occupants still spend time there, every once and a while, despite the fact that Yusaku now has definitive proof that Kusanagi doesn't actually made any money most afternoons they spend parked on its slope. The pot lives on the corner of Yusaku’s windowsill, most days, but today he’s brought it along to sit on the serving counter of Cafe Nagi in the hopes that one of them will come down from the hill.
And, like clockwork, one of them does start down the winding slope. For once, Yusaku actually hopes it’s Revolver- but on this rare occasion, it’s Spectre. Yusaku sighs, but then thinks it’s better this way. He can ask exactly what he intends, now.
Their order is always the same, and Kusanagi starts it before Spectre’s even reached the truck. He sets a cardboard box of chocolate beside the takeaway bag as Yusaku grabs the sapling and jumps out the back of the truck, stopping Spectre before he can reach the main window.
“Here,” Yusaku says, and all but shoves the plant at him. Spectre stares down at the pot as if he’s not entirely sure what he’s being offered, so Yusaku continues, “It’s a sapling.”
“I’m aware,” Spectre replies, taking the pot off Yusaku’s hands, “Is there a reason for the sudden gift?”
“Because. I never… apologized for that time on the bridge.”
Spectre lifts an eyebrow. “An apology isn’t necessary, given that I was threatening you.”
“That’s not the point,” Yusaku replies, then decides to cut the pleasantries and skip right to what he really wants to say. “Could you consider apologizing to Aoi? This was her idea.”
Spectre’s expression turns wide in surprise a moment before it furrows down into thought. “I… suppose I never did apologize for that time.”
“No,” says Yusaku flatly, “you didn’t.”
Spectre has the decency to look a little sheepish, at that. “I’ll… consider it,” is his reply, which Yusaku figures is about the best he’s going to get. He nods, and hops up into the back of Cafe Nagi again as Kusanagi calls out Spectre’s order- but he doesn’t miss, quiet at his back- Thank you.
It’s a month later that finds Yusaku and Aoi in much the same situation- sitting together in the public viewing plaza as Go extends his win streak in LINK VRAINS, taking on a few Charisma Duelist hopefuls in a series of friendly promotional matches.
Their attention doesn’t get to stay on Go for long, though- two familiar faces walk up to their table, one looking more uncomfortable than the other.
“Can we sit here?” Revolver asks. Yusaku and Aoi exchange a glance, knowing that neither of them have a particularly good reason to refuse. Past grievances aside, they’re all at least capable of being civil to each other, now. And if they’re here for what Yusaku thinks they might be here for, then…
The two of them nod in time, and Spectre takes a seat after a moment of deliberation- the one directly across from Aoi. Revolver casts an amused glance at Spectre, then heads over to the line in front of Cafe Nagi.
At the table, the silence hangs uncomfortable- there’s hardly even noise coming from the MC or LINK VRAINS during the interlude between matches to take their attention away from Spectre, clearly taking a rare moment to gather his words. He says, finally, “I… apologize. I was… unnecessarily cruel to you.”
He pushes a box across the table- plain white but tied up with a fanciful curled ribbon in blue. Yusaku knows immediately from the smell that it’s full of chocolates. Aoi lets out a long breath, then reaches out to take it. “I don’t really forgive you,” she says, “but this is a new start, I guess. Don’t screw it up this time.”
Spectre makes an uncomfortable expression, but if he’s surprised at Aoi’s bluntness he makes no comment. Yusaku lets out a breath, and thinks that went better than it very well could have.
Revolver, apparently sensing that the atmosphere is once again safe, returns with sets for both him and Spectre. The mood instantly turns lighter- but only on Revolver and Spectre’s side of the table. Yusaku can only feel a vague and creeping sense of dread.
“So,” Revolver asks, turning that amused gaze onto Yusaku and Aoi- which Yusaku is now aware means absolutely nothing but trouble- “How long have you two been dating, now?”
Yusaku and Aoi turn to each other, expressions unreadable.
“Are we dating?” Yusaku asks, realizing that the words come out too blunt- especially if Aoi does think they’re dating.
“Are we?” Aoi replies, equally blunt, a little curious. And the only thing Yusaku and Aoi can wonder as Spectre and Revolver look on is: Is that what we’ve been doing?
The back of Cafe Nagi is not meant to hold three people. It’s spacious, for a food truck- it has to be, what with the computer screens built into the walls and the uplink room built into the corner beside the water tank. Shoichi supposes that he could repurpose it now- but Yusaku still runs inside occasionally, claiming urgent business in LINK VRAINS. At least now, thinks Shoichi, it’s all mostly harmless.
The back of Cafe Nagi’s still not meant to hold three people, especially not when they’re three people all trying to accomplish three very different tasks, and not in any sort of order.
“Jin,” Yusaku says from behind a pile of cardboard boxes almost obscuring him where he’s seated on the floor, “stop eating the chocolate.”
“‘M not eating the chocolate,” Jin mumbles out though his mostly-closed mouth. If he were to open it to speak properly, Shoichi knows it would be full of chocolate. Probably the already prepared ones, too- because Jin, as always, is too keenly aware of the fact Shoichi will let him get away with anything.
“I’m going to charge you for that,” Shoichi says, packing another set of finished boxes away for tomorrow’s rush and craning his neck to try and see what exactly Jin is doing where he’s seated at the corner of the counter.
“You don’t even charge me for food,” Yusaku replies, not looking up from where he’s trying to scrape half-dried chocolate from the bottom of a bowl.
“You’re also not my brother.”
“Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?” Jin asks, after conspicuously swallowing and only slightly less conspicuously sneaking a bar off the counter and into the pocket of his hoodie.
Shoichi crosses the floor in wide but careful steps, dodging miscellanea scattered about the floor and hooks an arm around Jin’s shoulders.
“Nope,” he says, then fishes the chocolate bar out from Jin’s pocket with his free hand.
“You don’t even like dark chocolate,” Shoichi says, waving the bar in front of Jin’s face before taking it off to melt with the others. Jin makes a small noise of protest, but it’s not particularly serious, so Shoichi just laughs it off. Still, he knows if Jiin goes and steals another one, he won’t stop him. They’re enjoying themselves, and that’s all that matters.
“I’d like for you to have this,” Akira says, and pushes a small box wrapped up in gold across the dinner table. It glimmers soft in the candlelight, and Ema eyes it with suspicious anticipation from what has become her side of their usual table by the window. Akira has gifted her with a dozen things, over the years, and there’s not one of them that hasn’t seen at least some use over the years- information and treasures and presents all.
Ema takes her time opening it- the box is small, smaller than any he’s pushed across the table in the past. She pulls apart the ribbon tied across the top and wonders- it could be a flash drive, she supposes, though it’s quite unlike Akira to do so much for something so simple. A folded piece of paper, perhaps? But he has to know by now that she’ll find that quite anticlimactic.
Ema sates her curiosity and opens the box. Inside is a ring- a simple but elegant band of twisting silver, a diamond as its centerpiece. It’s simple, but it immediately strikes at Ema’s sensibilities. A single diamond needs no petty stones around it to shine its brightest. It’s beautiful, and the only thing Ema can think is- “Are you… proposing?”
She has no idea what else Akira could be doing, really, but Akira can be charmingly oblivious for the man who made the first move. (Though privately, most days, she still thinks Akira asked her on a date entirely on accident. Over the years, Akira himself has said and done absolutely nothing to dispel that notion, and so Ema continues to believe it true.)
“I thought you might not like me calling attention to it. Was I wrong?” Akira smiles, but the expression is tinged with a nervous, restless energy, so unlike his usual laidback kindness. “I can still call over the wait staff, if you’d like an audience? I have another box.”
“You do not,” Ema says, and she can’t help the little gasp that escapes her.
Akira, sheepishly, pulls another gold-wrapped box from his pocket. “It’s only on loan, though. The real ring is that one.”
He puncuates his words with a small wave of the extra box towards the one sitting before Ema- the one with the ring glittering low in the candlelight. Ema laughs, unable to stop herself.
This man - this ridiculous, kind-hearted, perfectly thoughtful fool of a man- Ema smiles genuine and wide and still feels like she wants to laugh her heart out. She turns the box back to him and holds out her hand, meeting the warm look in Akira’s eyes with one of her own.
“Yes,” she says, and lets Akira slip the ring onto her finger.